Cafe Reviews

Pacific Rim Shot

My dining companion is joking that the new Sapporo reminds her so much of P.F. Chang's that if someone were to put that eatery's trademark entry monument horses on wheels and roll them in front of the place, diners might never know the difference.

It's true that the two enterprises have a lot in common, the similarities all the more apparent given that Sapporo is just one street south of the P.F. Chang's in Keirland. Both are shiny restaurants serving contemporary takes on Asian food, and both double as ultra-hip drinking holes. Both cater to style-conscious crowds, and both take some serious maneuvering to get in for a meal. They're both aiming to be perfect places for perfect people.

And like Chang's, the $4.5 million Sapporo hums with a definite corporate feel, suggesting a board of directors at work planning every detail down to the creases in the servers' head-to-toe black uniforms. As the original Chang's was, the new Sapporo looks to be a prototype, poised for future chain expansion promoting formula fare.

After eating dinner, though, the difference is obvious: Sapporo is more than just an investor's idea of a beautiful balance sheet. Other trendy eateries may be content to rest on their lavish laurels, serving food that looks pretty but barely causes a ripple on the taste buds. The dishes at Sapporo, however, under the direction of no less than three executive chefs, grab attention with high-quality ingredients, expert execution, architectural presentation and spirited, well-balanced flavors. While the atmosphere cries corporate, this is a real food-lover's restaurant.

I've been wondering about the place since its skeleton began taking shape last summer. It didn't initially look appealing, designed as a massive cube, the 11,000- square-foot building decorated only with a few curving patio walls, flaming entry torches and roof treatments that look like butterfly wings in flight. Cold. It's also owned by American Restaurants of Scottsdale, which operates Jillys American Grill in Scottsdale Airpark and Maloney's bar in downtown Scottsdale. These places are known more for cocktails and chick-cruising than cuisine.

Plus, how many more sushi places does the stretch of Scottsdale road from Shea to Bell need, already graced with Sushi on Shea, RA Sushi and Sushi Brokers, not to mention a Kyoto Bowl and Shogun Express? Apparently there's room enough for at least one more, given that Sapporo's 300 seats are jammed, with the tables turning what appear to be several times a night. Through all the clutter, Sapporo stands out.

There are some things I can do without. Reservations are an absolute must, and the process is hardly friendly. Guests are asked for their name and number, and an employee calls back for confirmation on the day of the reservation, insisting diners arrive promptly since "space is tight." It's not a warm reception: All party members must be present before a table is offered, a cooler-than-thou hostess sniffs, leaving me hunkered against a wall outside. On special events (i.e. New Year's Eve), guests may speak only to a "reservations specialist," who isn't in, forcing my dining companion to call back. The process requires not only a credit card number to hold the spot, but a faxed, written agreement promising that you'll show up, plus a faxed copy of the front and back of a credit card.

A pain? You bet. But on the plus side, at least Sapporo takes reservations, unlike the "we're too busy to care" policy of other hot spots like the Cheesecake Factory and yes, P.F. Chang's. In my mind, there's virtually no restaurant experience special enough to put up with a wait longer than two hours, when we could have simply called ahead. Besides, it's still possible to grab a prime table at Sapporo's as a lunch walk-in.

Another gripe is more serious. Sapporo needs a crash course on cleaning. Gangbusters busy or not, there's no excuse for smudged silverware (at one lunch, a fork is studded with a previous diner's dried-out rice). Glass-topped tables often are smeared with dishcloth slime, glasses are clouded by water spots, and soy sauce carafes come with lips coated in residue. An 11 a.m. visit to the sushi bar finds the counter littered with bits of food debris, though we're the first guests. And where are the chopstick rests? The polished wands roll right off the glass tabletops onto the floor.

That said, I can suffer through the sloppiness for the food. Sapporo is split into three concepts, featuring teppanyaki, sushi and Pacific Rim. Note: All party members had better be in the mood for the same type of food, because with a few exceptions, each concept is offered in a separate area. A limited sushi menu crosses the borders.

Smudged or not, the sushi setting sets an upbeat mood. Grab a blue-suede chair and settle at the undulating slate and stainless-steel bar cradled between two curved walls of lacquered black stone set with waterfalls and fog mist. Gaze at a fish tank, bustling with bright-yellow swimmers; peek through the glass and see another tank, this one bobbing with neon-colored live jellyfish.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet